You write: ‘You spent some of your youth poor in London: think about the contrast between the you then and the salaried academic who visits now.’ (I paraphrase.)
To spend some days in London investigating the impact of my ‘working-class’ background. Why this choice of coffee? Why this art? Why this gait? Why these particular places?
3. The Salaried Academic
Lunch at the Reform. Prosecco in Soho. Shoe shopping in Covent Garden. Oh yes, and trousers. A vegan creperie on a gentrifying Brixton Road. BA from London City.
4. Measuring the years
Task twenty-eight. Twenty-eight years ago, I lived in London dipso and glum. (There were moments of euphoria.) Twenty-eight passages of twenty-eight words each. Twenty-eight images from last weekend.
5. Working working day and night
A cheap restaurant in Knightsbridge. A sandwich bar in Piccadilly. Nights in a burger bar in Gatwick Airport. The Harrods book department. A wine shop or two. Elsewhere?
6. Sophisticated Coffee
One day police raided the restaurant where I waited and the Polish barman, working illegally, had to pretend to be dining. I took over but couldn’t make cappuccino.
7. Great Britain’s Royal National Theatre
At nineteen, I was the prettiest and least effective security guard in London. A dying actor admired me in the National Theatre. He did Hamlet as his swansong.
8. A coxcomb
On Sundays the theatre was dark, and I explored. I tried on costumes only as ludicrous as my guard uniform and scaled the rigs above the Olivier stage.
Security had the self-importance of the convinced fascist. Induction films showed the interrogation of shoplifting staff. I avoided the employee entrance clutching a purloined book: two sackable offences.
10. The Tate Gallery
The old Tate. I took a friend outside James Stirling’s Clore extension, explaining it echoed colours and motifs from existing buildings. A Wagnerian curatrix rebuked us for trespass.
Memory can’t sequence my London. When did I live in Brixton? Leytonstone? Mile End? Kew? When did I live with one girlfriend? When did I visit with another?
12. A leisurely stroll by the Thames
In London Bridge station, I remember now, I peddled undercooked pastries from some chain in a booth. Lunchbreak was thirty minutes and I lost pay for taking forty-five.
13. London from the bus
Google shows it as skyline and landmarks but working London is a filmstrip of bricks and metal, concrete and plastic. A plunge into green or water. Other humans.
One chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses has headlines above text describing the city. The book I’m reading has short pieces of a hundred words each or exact multiples thereof.
15. Homesick (in the sense of sick from home)
Never will I not resent that ‘school for boys’ in Cork, where aspiration was derided and difference daily punished. No wonder we migrate, with no tools to thrive.
Alan O’Leary, Greenwood Estate, Togher, Cork City, County Cork, Munster, Ireland, Europe, The World, The Universe.
London was my Copernican moment, maybe. It don’t revolve around you, mate.
17. Financial continence
‘Working class’ is your designation, not mine. It was my brogue and enthusiasm that marked me out in London. I wasn’t poor, but I was poor with money.
18. Relative affluence
I didn’t have enough money. The city celebrates the fun from which you’re excluded. The (new) Tate is still free to enter but festooned with brazen requests for donation.
My father died because of money. I want not to think of the toxic stuff. London reminds me of not having enough, a constant ache in the gut.
I tramped the town from one picture gallery to the next, getting intimate with distances that the Tube shrank or amplified. I still know my own way around.
21. London is the family axe
They tear it down and put up new prime real estate all the time, of course. To make the rich richer. Pruning the poor with the family axe.
22. A discerning lad
Taste is set by seventeen. Mine was formed from borrowed volumes. Mantegna not Leonardo. Braque not Dalí. Judd not Koons. I was insufferable in a strong Cork accent.
23. Still friends
Dapper bibliophile Anton left Harrods to sell vintage clothes from a stall in Greenwich Market. We used to go drinking at lunchtime. Maybe I wasn’t such bad company?
24. Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga
Sometime in the noughties I went to Hamish Hendry’s old shared studio near Regent’s Park. Now I visit his Drummond Street shala, but I practice elsewhere if hungover.
I’m anxious our project might be aestheticizing complacency. Politically, things are valuable when they’re against the norm, aren’t they? Don’t we need to undo each other and ourselves?
26. Tired of life
The peculiar man I rented a room from kicked me out and I spent my last sixty quid on a ticket home to my mother in Cork, defeated.
London signifies disappointment but to return is to allow my past to change meaning. I do almost the same things now, but better. Lessons learned from my failure?
I’m not proud, exactly, of ‘being from Cork’ and my ‘Irish heritage’ (your words). Not to declare my origins would be like pretending I don’t have a body.